Tag Archives: evolution

Contaminated cuisines and the omnivore’s dilemma

The Egg of Death?

As a service to our readers and with the permission of the editors of Anthropology News, we have decided to republish each month’s SAFN column from that publication.  This, then, is the December 2010 column, edited by Kenneth Maes and Alyson Young.

Contaminated cuisines and the omnivore’s dilemma
By George Armelagos (Emory U) and Kenneth Maes (Brown U)

Much media and scholarly attention has been paid to obesity epidemics. More recently, worry over food safety in terms of pathogenic infection and toxicity has assumed prominence on par with concerns about over-nutrition. George Armelagos, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology at Emory University and recipient of the AAA’S 2008 Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service, recently took on both of these issues in an article published in the Journal of Anthropological Research (66[2]:161-186), entitled “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Evolution of the Brain and the Determinants of Food Choice.” The article critiques Michael Pollan’s popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma for ignoring the importance of infectious epidemics caused by industrial food systems in the US. Below, George Armelagos and Kenneth Maes discuss the omnivore’s dilemma in light of last summer’s massive salmonella outbreak in the US egg supply.

Omnivores have a predilection for a varied diet, but this represents a challenge given that new foods are often feared for their potentially poisonous and deadly qualities. This is the omnivore’s dilemma: the confrontation between neophilia and neophobia.

The omnivore’s dilemma for our primate cousins is instructive. The rainforest may seem to be an unlimited source of food, much like a supermarket. But many plants have evolved toxins for their own protection. In 1978, Daniel Janzens commented that the primate world is not colored various shades of green, but instead colored morphine, caffeine, tannin, phenol, oxalic acid, and saponin. Thus potential jungle foods demand careful discrimination.

The invention of cuisine was an essential process in human biocultural evolution. As a cultural system, cuisine determines items in nature that are potentially edible and how they are processed into food, flavored or enhanced, and eaten in a culturally-correct manner.  Cuisine is thus an attempted solution to the omnivore’s dilemma. But not all aspects of a cuisine are adaptive. Aspects of an industrialized food system can be severely maladaptive—and thus the omnivore’s dilemma remains unvanquished for modern humans.

This is illustrated by last summer’s recall of a half-billion eggs after nearly 1300 cases of salmonella infection were reported among US consumers. This massive number of eggs came from only two factory farms in Iowa, which in turn had a common supplier of chicken feed. This attests to the extent of conglomeration in the food industry, driven by a desire for cheaper food, which incentivizes the cutting of safety corners. Neither factory involved in the recall had ever been inspected by the top federal and state agencies responsible for food safety oversight (for details, click here).

In last summer’s salmonella epidemic, hens were individually exposed to infected rodent feces, leading to salmonella infection of their ovaries and thus their developing eggs. In previous salmonella outbreaks spread by chicken eggs, the mode of transmission involved contamination of the outer shells of already-laid eggs. This is controlled by more stringent procedures in preparing eggs for market. Unfortunately, such procedures cannot prevent the infection of hens’ ovaries and thus eggs that are infected “from the inside-out.”

In 1999, Paul Mead and colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths in the US each year. Salmonella, Listeria, and Toxoplasma are responsible for 1,500 of these deaths, while the majority of deaths and illnesses are caused by unknown food-borne agents, including toxins, viruses, and other bacteria. For Mead and colleagues, the importance of these unknown agents cannot be overstated. Yet 63% of US shoppers feel that foods sold in supermarkets are safe, though this percentage may be dropping.

Throughout human evolution, contaminated or poisonous foods have posed a problem despite the attempts of cuisine to keep them out of our bodies. Michael Pollan’s popular writings overlook this aspect of the omnivore’s dilemma. For Pollan, the dilemma faced by humans in the U.S. and around the world involves the long-term health consequences of over-consuming sugars, fats and salt. Over-nutrition is certainly important, but is only part of the dietary dilemma faced by people today. A complete understanding of the omnivore’s dilemma must include the more immediate dangers posed by infectious microbes and toxins in industrialized food systems. Perhaps rainforests and supermarkets share a fundamental similarity after all.

Please send your news and items of interest to Kenneth Maes or Alyson Young.

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Evolution and Meat

Smoked chicken!

There was a fascinating piece on the National Public Radio news program Morning Edition (on the August 2, 2010 show) regarding the links between human evolution, meat eating and cooking.  Naturally, this caught our attention here at FoodAnthropology.  It featured insights from several anthropologists and was about food.  What more can one ask from a news story?  Read and listen to it here.

There are several points of interest.  First is the idea that eating meat allowed humans to develop the kinds of brains that we have now.  A good idea, but apparently eating the meat raw was not sufficient.  In fact, eating most things raw was more difficult and, in some cases, less nutritious than eating the same things cooked.  Of course, this adds culture to evolution.  Fascinating aspect of adaptation, really.  This is precisely the kind of thing that makes evolution so amazing.  This may be an old insight in anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss made some observations on cooking, culture and evolution, for example), but it is not really appreciated by non-anthropologists, I think.

Now, I can imagine that all of this could be considered controversial from some points of view.  Folks in the vegetarian, vegan and raw food camps probably have interesting things to say about this.  They might assert that pre-historic diets of nuts and fruit, eaten raw, were really all our (very distant) ancestors needed.  So why should we need more?  They may make strange assertions about what our guts are designed to digest and suggest that we avoid meat, milk, cooked foods, etc.  The archaeologists and biological anthropologists can show that their view of our ancestors is incorrect, but that may not matter.  They will invent new ancestors.  People love to legitimize their positions through imagined ancestors.

In addition, if you read the comments at the end of the NPR piece, you will see people grappling with another kind of issue: if our ancestors developed big brains by eating meat, they seem to ask, does that mean my kid will get a big brain if he or she eats steak?  Well, no, not exactly.  There is a misunderstanding here between the idea of what is adaptive for populations and what is healthy at any given time for individuals.  Here too, people are looking for legitimacy in ancestors, but the problem is that the units of analysis are off.

The links between diet and evolution—including the choices to eat meat and to cook—were probably not well understood by our ancestors, but they did prove to be adaptive.  Are they still adaptive?  It is hard to tell.  Are they healthy for us as individuals?  You can’t really read that from the evolutionary record.  That said, it seems likely that the manner in which we produce most meat today is not sustainable.  And by sustainable, I mean that it harms the environment in ways that may harm us.  Does this mean we should cease eating meat?  Eat less of it?  Produce what we do eat differently?  I like some of those ideas, but not because I know they will prove to be adaptive in an evolutionary sense.  You can’t really make sense of the world that way—it is too abstract.  Our ancestors started at some point to eat meat and later started to cook it, along with other things.  This proved to be a great idea at the time.  I love grilling meat, so I think it is still a great idea.  But you’ll notice that one of the anthropologists cited in the story is a vegetarian (that would be Richard Wrangham, author of the very interesting book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, 2009, Basic Books).  He understands the adaptive nature of meat eating and cooking in the past.  So what does his choice mean now?

You can’t really plan an evolutionary strategy.  You can only tell that what your ancestors did worked at the time.  If our choices are adaptive today, we will have descendants who can look back and appreciate those choices.  I guess that is why it is evolution, not revolution.

posted by David Beriss

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